A flight through Hurricane Hugo, remembered 20 years later

By: Dr. Jeff Masters , 1:21 PM GMT on September 15, 2009

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The remains of Hurricane Fred continue to generate sporadic bursts of heavy thunderstorm activity over the middle Atlantic Ocean. These thunderstorms were generating winds up to 35 mph, according to this morning's QuikSCAT pass. Dry air and high wind shear of 20 - 25 knots today and Wednesday will continue to prevent regeneration of Fred. By Thursday, the chances for regeneration of Fred increase, since wind shear near Fred's remains will fall below 20 knots. However, continued high wind shear and dry air over the next two days will further disrupt the remains of Fred, and there may not be enough left of the storm to regenerate from by the time the wind shear drops. The NOGAPS model forecasts that Fred could regenerate by Sunday, when the remains of the storm will be approaching the Bahama Islands.

Satellite imagery shows a small circulation associated with a tropical wave about 200 miles west of the Cape Verdes Islands. Heavy thunderstorms activity has increased in this region over the past day. However, wind shear is near 20 knots, which is marginal for development, and shear will increase to near 30 knots as the wave progresses west-northwest into a band of high wind shear that lies to its north. It is unlikely that this wave can develop into a tropical depression this week, and NHC is giving it a low (less than 30% chance) of developing into a tropical depression by Thursday.

Tropical storm development is possible this week along a frontal zone stretching from the Bahamas northeastward. Anything that develops may end up being extratropical in nature, and would likely move northeastward out to sea.

The GFS model is predicting development of a new tropical wave coming off the coast of Africa early next week.


Figure 1. The remains of Hurricane Fred (left) appears as a swirl of low-level clouds with a clump of heavy thunderstorm activity on the northwest side. A tropical wave is 200 miles west of the Cape Verdes Islands (right), off the coast of Africa. This wave is probably under too much wind shear to develop.

A flight through Hurricane Hugo, remembered 20 years later
The events of September 15, 1989, have affected me more deeply than those of any other day in my life. The fifteen members of our crew very nearly became the first of Hurricane Hugo's many victims, and I am still grappling twenty years later with the emotional fallout from the experience. (If you are troubled by a traumatic experience, you may want to consider EMDR therapy, which I found to be helpful). The process of writing the story of that flight was also very therapeutic, and I worked intermittently for six years on the story while I was working towards my Ph.D. For those of you who haven't read it, do so! I worked very hard on it, and it is a remarkable story.


Figure 2. GOES visible satellite image of Hurricane Hugo taken on September 15, 1989. Image credit: Google Earth rendition of the NOAA HURSAT data base.

The Hurricane Hunters often carry reporters and camera crews on their flights, and the unlucky soul on our flight through Hurricane Hugo was young Janice Griffith of the Barbados Sun newspaper. Her account:

Horror of Hugo's Eye
TO a young reporter, with perhaps more journalistic curiosity than is good for her, it seemed a chance for a good story. To others, who were quick to tell me so, a flight into the centre of a powerful and dangerous hurricane was "sheer madness".

In the end, my journey Friday on a "Hurricane Hunter" aircraft with a hardened, professional crew was nerve-shattering, awesome, and unforgettable. When we limped back into Grantley Adams International after a beating from nature's fury in the form of Hurricane Hugo, I had my story. But I also had to agree that I must have been crazy to have gone in the first place.

Not that I wasn't forewarned.

You sure you want to go?" Dr. James McFadden, manager of the airborne science programmes of the United States Department of Commerce and head of the team asked when I raised the subject following their arrival from their Miami base on Thursday night. "It can be a very dangerous trip".

I wasn't fazed. After all, I'd flown a lot on commercial aircraft, from LIAT to large jumbo jets, and these hurricane hunter were experts who, I was assured, had been in the business of tracking storms in the Atlantic and Caribbean for a dozen years or more. Some had even been at it for 18.

They'd all been through and gone into the eyes of dozens of hurricanes and come back to tell the tale. Not even apprehensive as I, the only woman along with 10 men, boarded just before noon Friday and was shown to one of the four seats in the cockpit, just behind pilot Gerry McKim.

No hostess coming through with complimentary drinks here--or clicking on a seat belt. I was harnessed in like an infant in the rear seat of a car, waist and shoulders securely strapped. "Just in case", I was told.

While I observed, wide-eyed, everyone went about his business with the facility of someone who has done it all before a hundred times over--the pilot and co-pilot, Lowell Genzlinger, the flight engineer, the navigator, the weather experts. Everyone.

Calming effect
Their efficiency had a calming effect and the first half-hour or so, as we headed northeast to investigate and report on the details of Hugo's size and power, was no rougher than any commercial flight I've been on.

But then the sky began to close in with heavy, dark clouds and the 14-year old turboprop plane began to take the kind of buffeting it must have done several times during similar sorties.

The crew treated it all as a matter of course, getting on with their duties, checking radar and charts, communicating their information to headquarters in Miami, doing the other chores that seemed to keep everyone busy.

My notebook tells me we caught up with Hugo at 1:28 pm. For the next hour or so, I wondered why we ever tried--and I got the distinct impression almost everyone aboard wondered that too.

We were surrounded by clouds a dark gray, almost blue, color. The rain pelted down on the fuselage with an intensity that was deafening, like torrential rain on a galvanized roof and with a force that, it was later discovered, burst a small hole in the roof of the fuselage. When it was visible, the sea was almost black, like bubbling tar.

The computer print-out that had registered the wind speed from the time we took off peaked at 185 mph around this time.

We entered the eye--the area of low pressure that is completely calm and marks the centre of the hurricane--at an altitude of about 5,000 feet. Suddenly, my stomach seemed to become detached from my body as as the place dropped, I was told later, to 1,500 feet.

All hell seemed to break loose around and back of me. Briefcases, cups, soda-cans, books, anything unsecured came clattering down. The air conditioning shut down as did the radar and the weather computer. I just gripped the nearest arm and held on for dear life, realizing now why we had all been strapped in so tightly.

"That's unusual", flight engineer Steve Wade said when McKim and Genzlinger got back control of their plane. His attempt at sounding cool was father futile.

Dr. McFadden, a stocky man with gray beard and spectacles, came through, checking on us. He was visibly shaken.

"Everyone alright?" he inquired. We were but his face mirrored his concern when he told me: "This is the worst experience in all of our years going into a hurricane".

Soon there was to be even more. It was discovered that engine No. 3--the near right-side--had conked out. The pilots reported it was on fire and they had to shut it down. Another one was working but not at full capacity.

My life, I knew, rested in the skilled and experienced hands, and heads, of those in control of this wonderful piece of machinery. But, to tell the truth, I was never overcome by fear or panic. Somehow, I sensed all would be well.

Perhaps if I'd known more it would have been different, for we still had to find our way back out of the eye, to penetrate the wall again, and to gain elevation. To do that, on reduced power, meant jettisoning 7,000 of our 10,000 pounds of fuel to lighten the load and circling for an eternal hour while this was done.

Finally, a "weak spot" was found in the cloud formation and we could make an exit from the prison of the eye where we had been trapped for a frightening hour. Around us, winds were now registering 155 knots, and the plane was still being hammered by the weather.

But we were out of the eye and Dr. McFadden, in jubilant relief, exclaimed: "Let's get out of here". He echoed the feeling of everyone aboard.

The system engineer, Schricker ("that's it, don't worry about the first name", he said when I pressed) was more explicit. "I've been flying for 18 years and I don't think I want to fly again," he said.

As we got out of Hugo's clutches and left him to make his way towards the eastern Caribbean, Dr. McFadden put the experience in perspective for me. "You didn't really know what you went through," he said as we headed back to Grantley Adams, itching to back on Terra Firma. "We almost didn't get out of the eye. We almost didn't make it. It was a serious situation".

I believed him--and couldn't help wonder at the bravery of these men who so frequently risk their lives so that others may be saved from the destruction of the storms that head across the Atlantic annually between June and November.

They were working at Grantley Adams yesterday on getting that engine back into shape so that they could be ready the next time another one comes along.

They must be crazy!


Figure 3. An account of the September 15, 1989 flight through Hurricane Hugo posted by reporter Janice Griffith in the Barbados Sun newspaper.

Comments on Janice's story
The rain didn't really punch a hole the fuselage of our airplane as Janice reported. Also, we penetrated the eyewall at 1,500 feet, and dropped to 880 feet during the extreme turbulence in the eyewall. Other than that, Janice has the facts pretty well in hand, particularly the "They must be crazy!" part. Three of us--myself, radio operator Tom Nunn, and electronic engineer Terry Schricker--never flew again on a hurricane hunter mission. However, four members of that flight--Hurricane Field Program Manager Dr. Jim McFadden, Chief Systems Engineer Alan Goldstein, Navigator (now flight meteorologist) Sean White, and the director of NOAA's Hurricane Research Division, Frank Marks--continue to fly into hurricanes to this day.

I caught up with Janice Griffith via email last year, when I invited her to a "Hurricane Hugo survivors luncheon" for the twelve people from that flight who are still alive (alas, radio operator Tom Nunn, electronic engineer Neil Rain, and chief scientist Dr. Bob Burpee have passed on). Six of us got together at a hurricane conference in Orlando. Janice is still working as a reporter in Barbados, and couldn't make it. Her email to me:

"Nice Hearing from you.
Well after that trip into the eye of Hurricane Hugo,
I certainly will not be going on another.
We almost lost our lives.
And whenever I think about it...I just get some shivers".

Jeff Masters

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Per the 18z GFS an impressive trof should be in place when what ever is out there possibly trys to push into the bahamas.That thing will halt any westerly motion on any tc. another home run for mark mcgwire. oh wait that wasn't really him.
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am giveing fred ch of a Orange circle at %100 at 8pm and red circle at %80
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.
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Quoting TexasHurricane:


Is Choi-Wan suppose to make landfall somewhere? or will it miss land?


Most models agree that this trough will amplify and cause Choi-Wan to recurve south of Japan island

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Quoting Ameister12:
Choi-Wan sure is something!




Is Choi-Wan suppose to make landfall somewhere? or will it miss land?
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Best cyclone of the year...by far.

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Fred could be the talk of the 2009 season in the end. LOL
Member Since: July 1, 2008 Posts: 13 Comments: 7396
Quoting JupiterFL:


or a diurinal poster...


Ziiiing! You never miss a beat, do you?
Member Since: July 17, 2009 Posts: 71 Comments: 26492
ex-Fred @ 8PM

Yellow circle - 50%
Orange circle - 30%
Red circle - 10%
NONE - 10%


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Quoting CybrTeddy:



Cant wait until someone asks 'whats that model that takes it out to sea? Maybe its on to something'


come to the blog early 2mr morning, the poster will be there.
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Quoting Weather456:
Another amazing obs. Fred is more popular now as a low than it was at 125 mph.
Maybe because he was written off and now he is becoming a possible threat...it is a little unusual.
Member Since: September 27, 2007 Posts: 1 Comments: 21416
Quoting Stormchaser2007:


Fred will not be a threat to the CONUS....

LOL




Cant wait until someone asks 'whats that model that takes it out to sea? Maybe its on to something'
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Quoting Grothar:


You think we may have another diurinal hurricane on our hands??


or a diurinal poster...
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Quoting reedzone:


I dunno, when we expect things to be orange, they turn out yellow.
It SHOULD be orange, but never leave out a red ;)


Reed, you did a pretty good job with this one. I remember the flak you were taking a few days back. No one even mentioned my comments that Fred would be around awhile.

Kudos to you on this one! I'm not saying he will come back strong, just that he was written off too quickly.
Member Since: July 17, 2009 Posts: 71 Comments: 26492
Quoting Weather456:
Another amazing obs. Fred is more popular now as a low than it was at 125 mph.


Breathtaking!! :O
Member Since: July 1, 2008 Posts: 13 Comments: 7396
But Fred should be watched as I wouldn't take a vigorous circulation moving into the Bahamian area or GOM likely. If the models are correct, the shear in 5 days should moderate its strength.

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Choi-Wan sure is something!


Member Since: August 9, 2009 Posts: 10 Comments: 5026
Another amazing obs. Fred is more popular now as a low than it was at 125 mph.
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Quoting reedzone:
Fred is entering favorable conditions despite being next to the ULL. Shear map shows 5-15 knots all the way till you get north of the Islands. Maybe this is why models are strengthening it.

Yes, for a long time he was looking for that low shear environment to fire up,since COC have been preserve intact after losing his TS status.
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I'm thinking orange by 8pm.
Member Since: August 9, 2009 Posts: 10 Comments: 5026
Quoting stormpetrol:
exFred will either have a orange or red circle at 8pm imo. If upgraded will Fred still have name Fred?


yea
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Quoting TheDawnAwakening:
While it will take a little while longer watching ex Fred or Fred redevelop, Super Typhoon Choi-Wan is amazing looking, that eye is amazing and looks very scary. I wonder what happened to those islands to the west and southwest of Choi-Wan. It is an amazing looking cyclone.






I read there are only a few people on most of those islands. The ones in the north are least populated, 10-15 people only, but i am using wikipedia.
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Quoting reedzone:
Probably won't see the GFDL or HWRF until 2 a.m. because this was re-invested at 18Z. Also.. wouldn't it be something if the NHC keeps good old Fred on yellow at 8 p.m.?? :P


Maybe
the way they (NHC) have been this year

I think it deserves to be orange but heck I would not be surprise to see it at yellow still.
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Quoting aquak9:
Someone, please tell me that Fred will not be a threat to the CONUS.


Fred will not be a threat to the CONUS....

LOL

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Quoting JupiterFL:


I am pretty sure that no one was talking to you to begin with.


You think we may have another diurinal hurricane on our hands??
Member Since: July 17, 2009 Posts: 71 Comments: 26492
Quoting TexasHurricane:


Glad to hear you are doing better....
User Tamiflu as soon as possible , for the first 48hours, is a most to use Tamiflu.
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exFred will either have a orange or red circle at 8pm imo. If upgraded will Fred still have name Fred?
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Quoting btwntx08:
who expects it to be orange at 8 pm i do who else


I dunno, when we expect things to be orange, they turn out yellow.
It SHOULD be orange, but never leave out a red ;)
Member Since: July 1, 2008 Posts: 13 Comments: 7396
Quoting aquak9:
Someone, please tell me that Fred will not be a threat to the CONUS.
imo i don't think so but anything can happen i guess wait watch see for now
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Quoting Stormchaser2007:
Keeps on beating the odds.


I can't believe ex-Fred(07L) is keeping its act together in those conditions.
Member Since: August 9, 2009 Posts: 10 Comments: 5026
Quoting kingzfan104:


so? i like to follow along here and the stupidity of what people here do everytime a storm pops up is beyond dumb. every time it looks good for 1 satellite frame, it is going to be a monster and blah, blah, blah. theres a reason the nhc is so good, its because they dont make rash decisions

I kinda agree that some people on WU tend to get really overly excited when something looks interesting on here but dude you're wording and the way you put the group as a whole down is tasteless. If you just want to be entertained sit back and watch but don't annoy.
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Quoting btwntx08:
also theres an anticyclone building by fred


huh? This shows the exact opposite

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Probably won't see the GFDL or HWRF until 2 a.m. because this was re-invested at 18Z. Also.. wouldn't it be something if the NHC keeps good old Fred on yellow at 8 p.m.?? :P
Member Since: July 1, 2008 Posts: 13 Comments: 7396
Fred's environment seems marginal for development through 4 days.

Shear is reintroduce over Fred in 120 hrs or 5 days, about the same time Fred is approaching the Bahamas. Much of the global models also show the shear dropping down to near 70-80W north of 23N.
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Someone, please tell me that Fred will not be a threat to the CONUS.
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573. Relix
Fred making a comeback. Expected from some here (including me!). Nothing of interest for the antilles at the moment (doesn't look like much more for a week or more either). Let's see what Fred does
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lets see if NHC says anything about it in 45 mins or so
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While it will take a little while longer watching ex Fred or Fred redevelop, Super Typhoon Choi-Wan is amazing looking, that eye is amazing and looks very scary. I wonder what happened to those islands to the west and southwest of Choi-Wan. It is an amazing looking cyclone.
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569. JLPR
Quoting reedzone:
Fred is entering favorable conditions despite being next to the ULL. Shear map shows 5-15 knots all the way till you get north of the Islands. Maybe this is why models are strengthening it.



Maybe Fred could come back as a Subtropical system no? because of the ULL almost on top of it
Member Since: September 4, 2007 Posts: 36 Comments: 5223

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Jeff co-founded the Weather Underground in 1995 while working on his Ph.D. He flew with the NOAA Hurricane Hunters from 1986-1990.

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